Sunday, December 25

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I'd almost forgotten what Christmas was. As impossible as it sounds, it's actually more reasonable than you'd imagine. A certain milestone is long-acknowledged among us young adults, that marker when Christmas stops being a juicy gift-fest bestowing the latest in technology or clothing vouchers and switches over to something a little more reserved, more mature. We start buying "ourselves" presents, and the whole holiday season suddenly finds itself more focused on family togetherness than sheer materialism. Oftentimes, nieces or nephews have since entered the picture, therefore diverting attention away from our perfumes and Playstation games as the festive magic discovers a new lease of life. Throughout my childhood, the only purpose my parents served on Christmas morning was to supplement Santa's hedonistic haul with some additional trinkets, on top of day-long gluttonous nourishment. Now I find myself yearning for their company at this time of year as much to satisfy my own homesickness as to appease their anxiety about my well-being. After having successfully survived the last three years' festivities in basic training, Djibouti and Afghanistan respectively, I'd only momentarily hesitate before saying that they can rest assured for this year. After all, you never know……

The motto reads "Legio Patria Nostra". The Legion is our fatherland. Our home. Once upon a time I considered this motto slightly archaic, daresay obsolete given these modern times we live in, times of perennial connection to every nook and cranny of the planet. But this Christmas something changed. Something inside forced me to take a step back to the very edge of the frame, to try to digest the entirety of this cracked, crazy, cacophonous canvas of the strange. Finding myself roped into arguably the most tedious duty in the Legion at Christmas time - the dreaded "Crèche" - I had initially held a discreet send-off party for the sum total of my festive cheer as the two weeks leading up to Christmas Eve prepared to be inundated with the unenviable duty of rummaging around in rubbish bins and scavenging through the catacomb-like basement of the company building in search of any material deemed usable for the construction of our company creche. 

The Legion crèche is a scale model inspired by whatever theme has been decided by the superiors earlier in the year (ie. 2 weeks before the thing is due to be finished), typically encompassing legion postings overseas and culminating in the appearance of the nativity scene placed centrally in the display.

And so, with a sarcastic, impatient, yet essentially motivated platoon sergeant at the helm, I was introduced to my team for this particular challenge. Enter the Zimbabwean, the Nepalese, the Czech and the Mexican. Four countries, four continents, yet in an incredibly convenient turn of events, one language. Thus English reigned in the converted classroom as we set to work. The idea was for each of the four to recount their last Christmas, in their native countries, before coming to the Legion. They each were responsible for their own corner of the display table, decorating it appropriately to reflect a typical landscape from their home country. That was their job. Mine was to take them one by one, co-construct a coherent script for each legionnaire to read, and record it on to my mac before then mixing in traditional music to play in the background as the speeches were read out. Not as easy (or as fun) as it sounds.

The models progressed, the scripts tightened up further, the music settled on a definitive playlist, and eventually the lighting entered the ring for an all-out royal rumble on my patience, nerves and concentration. The judging would be on the 23rd (by the colonel, no less - our creche being one of eight prepared by different companies and groups from the regiment) while the 24th would be an open-door-day for families of serving legionnaires as well as any interested civilians who cared to pop in for a look. By lunchtime on the 24th, the fatigue and ennui had reached boiling point. The heat in the classroom was causing the four guys (who had to remain standing perfectly still behind their respective scenes during the ten-minute-long performance) to slowly lose consciousness, as well as causing my sweating hands to slip on the mouse touch-pad, threatening to derail my delicately balanced sound-mixing duties. Unknown to me, however, was another factor at work, slowly chipping away at the guys' festive spirit. It was explained to me over a beer later in the evening;

"It's actually quite hard, hearing your own voice relive a fantastic Christmas spent with all your family and friends back home in Mexico, and you being stuck in this stuffy classroom like some museum exhibit for all these strangers."

For my Zimbabwean friend, the melancholy touched deeper still.

"I really don't want to hear that recording again. The government took our farm, our home. That fantastical Christmas can never be repeated again. I can't bear to think of some fat politician sitting on my porch, eating at my table. It's too much."

The guys from Czech Republic and Nepal shared similar sentiments. Everyone was more than relieved when the sergeant came into the classroom to announce the end of our infernal shift. The bar beckoned. The company enjoyed a large Christmas meal together, followed by the traditional gift-giving, where the company captain hands each legionnaire a gift. The "sketches" then kicked off, where the corporals and legionnaires prepare comedic skits on their commanding officers. I myself hopped up on stage with a Russian friend, guitars-in-hand, to perform a rendition of  R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" of all tunes. It went down to raucous applause (I later found out from my captain that the colonel - who was coincidentally in attendance - had attempted to sing along, without knowing a single correct lyric). Fair play!

The night, overall, was a resounding success. Our crèche placed third out of eight, which was a respectable result. Sat around in a circle, though, the crèche team took to recounting more recent memories, those accumulated in our (relatively short/long) time in the Legion. Some stories had us in tears with laughter. Bottles clinked, toasts were called, more stories, more tears, more bottles. Our distant homes were, for once, at the back of our mind as the limelight shone down on this little huddled circle of new-found brothers, in a new-found home. Perhaps Christmas has traversed another rung on the evolutionary ladder. Perhaps, for the time being, this is what it's all about.

I sure hope so.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Sunday, December 11

Born Again

"Les excuses sont comme des trous de cul - tout le monde en a un". *

One of the things I truly admire about the military hierarchy is the very definite boundaries of responsibility. One's proverbial "limite gauche - limit droite"**, beyond which not only are you not obliged to stray, but in some cases not even permitted to. Of course, initiative is encouraged here in the Legion, but mainly in a retrospective manner. Making a decision to intervene, assist or take charge of something outside your zone of responsibility can only ever be greeted with two outcomes. You either get shouted at for taking too much initiative, for considering yourself too smart for your own good, or you get a rollicking for sticking to your fixed responsibilities instead of using your brain and going the extra mile. You can simply never know. Therefore a wonderful counter-phrase invented by legionnaires frankly states "Ce n'est pas mon niveau."***. Voila! If it ventures outside your perimeter of responsibility, fuck it! Let someone else deal with it. Relief hurtles towards a stressed legionnaire in the form of a buck discreetly passed, a loophole discovered in the list of his objectives. 

"I'm not qualified for that." 

"I'm not the corporal on duty." 

Or the most famous and recyclable of all; 

"Moi pas compris."****

Of course this may be a slight exaggeration. Initiative is something that all employers encourage and reward. In that respect, the Legion is no different. But the ever-present option to sit back on a laissez-faire, work-to-rule attitude would certainly appear to be the more popular candidate. A fear of getting something wrong knocks the desire to go above and beyond the call of duty right out of the ring and in to the snarling audience below. A shame, really. But everybody's been guilty at one point or another. I've just begun to realize, however, that while my service record to-date might appear whiter-than-white, it's been more so my personal life outside of the Legion ("What personal life outside of the Legion?" some of the less educated observers of this formidable establishment might ask) that has suffered the consequences of a certain shirking of responsibilities. Let me explain.

Men of every race and religion have, for almost two centuries, used their old lives, lives ravaged, torn, irreparable or just unbearably monotonous, as excuses to flock to France and embark on a military lifestyle quite unlike any other on the planet. We're all told we are volunteers, came to the Legion of our own free will, but the truth could never be further from such a facile and banal statement. Men feel compelled to come to the Legion, to hammer on its gates and demand entry, demand anonymity, demand a complete deconstruction and reconstruction of their very selves. A broken-down marriage, criminal record or crippling tragedy might serve as the superficial explanation, indeed many most certainly believe that it is for this very reason that they were drawn to the gates of Fort de Nogent or Aubagne. But something greater was at work. Something greater is always at work whenever the Legion is concerned. When you join the Legion, you don't just get away from whatever you thought you needed to get away from. You get away from it ALL. Bills, tax returns, rent, DIY duties, they all go "poof" in a cloud of green and red smoke as you suddenly find yourself being led through life by the hand. A whistle tells you when to get out of bed, a whistle tells you when to eat, a whistle tells you when to return to bed before it all begins again the next day. Your passport's out of date? No worries, word will travel down the chain of command until it eventually reaches you, demanding no more than a few photos to be taken during your free weekend in order to remedy the situation. Don't know what to take out in the field for a few weeks' camping and training? Relax, wait until your C.O. prints out a full list of every item to be included in your bag, everything from what boots to take to how many t-shirts and pairs of socks you'll need. Don't forget a change of underwear and spare batteries for your torch either. Ah bless.

So for those who chose to regard it from such angles, Legion life is a breeze. But as I said earlier, it's not life in the Legion that has me perplexed these past few days. It's the life outside the Legion. The life I catch a brief glimpse of for 48 hours a week and again while on vacation. My keyhole voyeurism directed towards all things "real" exhibits a rather rose-tinted Friday-night-to-Sunday-morning non-stop party. Relaxing train rides to Paris, hotel rooms, pubs, clubs, girls, shopping, restaurants, cinemas, all in one nauseatingly high-speed montage that leaves little left in reserve for the return to work Monday morning. But sure Monday doesn't require much effort anyway, does it? Cruise-control, remember? 

The problem lies in the inevitable transition awaiting the end of my contract here. A soldier's wage is pittance in terms of modern living standards, but when food, accommodation, heating, electricity and travel is all paid for, that pittance transforms into a rather enviable lump of pocket money. The rate of expenditure would have made my pre-Legion self's hair stand on end, and that was BEFORE the global economic melt-down. What happens when those other five days of the week, those continuously negotiated by my civilian friends enduring challenging careers in all walks of life, return? What happens when bills, tax-returns, health insurance, rent, food, heating, electricity, etc all come crawling back, up the staircase and scratching at my bedroom door like the undead monsters of adulthood? What then?

I can feel a few New Year's Resolutions forming at the back of my mind as I type this now. Cut-backs, budgeting, forward planning. Measures must be taken. They don't teach you that in Castel, however. "Chacun sa merde!"*****. Becoming a Legionnaire is - dare I say -  the easy part. It's transforming back in to a functioning member of society that's the real challenge. I guess it'll up to me to show some initiative. The only difference in this case is that there'll be nobody to give me a right ol' rollicking if I don't show enough, or too much…or……. I don't know!!! Guess I better make the most of the 20 months of hassle-free living that lies before me.

Vive la Légion!

*       "Excuses are like assholes, everybody's got one."
**     (Literally "Left Limit - Right Limit). A term used to designate surveillance sectors in the French Army.
***    "It's not my level."
****  (Literally "Me no understand."). Used incessantly by young Legionnaires when unable to follow orders.
***** (Literally "Each one his own shit)". An expression meaning "Each man for himself".